by Sam Burkhart
"Yosemite is definitely the mecca, but the thing about Red Rock is, you can go climbing here at some of the best spots in the world and then you can be at a Starbucks 20 minutes later,” explains Doug Foust, our guide from the Alpine Institute of America.
In this heat I’m not exactly dying for an Americano, but I guess it’s nice to know it’s an option. We’re in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area for the day, determined to defy gravity, defy our fears and keep up with Doug on the sandstone walls within this 80,000-hectare nature preserve.
The first time Doug went climbing, he ended up on lead. He’s a natural, and now he’s leading me and couple other wannabe climbers in one of the “finest rock climbing areas in the world” and a great place to learn the ropes.
In 1990, an Act of Congress upgraded Red Rock from a Recreation Area to a Conservation Area. The region is a classic example of Nevada’s Upper Mojave Desert. At 1,100 to 1,400 metres of elevation, it has distinct vegetation and a singular feel, yet it’s quintessential desert. With the craggy, red Calico Hills and towering mountains — the tallest of which is 2,485-metre La Madre — this is a sandbox, literally, for would-be hikers, bikers and climbers and it’s all within a short drive of the Las Vegas Strip.
We meet Doug in the suburbs of Las Vegas and he explains that this region doesn’t get the climbing cred it deserves — that unlike Yosemite you won’t find many dirtbag climbers in Red Rock. The irony of his picking us up in a well-lived-in VW Westfalia isn’t lost on me.
It’s almost all sandstone in Red Rock. “It’s probably the best medium for climbing. It’s climber-friendly just ‘cause the sandstone has good friction to it so your feet stick real well. But it’s not real abrasive so it doesn’t tear you apart,” Doug reassures us. I’m going to be relying on this friction to get me to the top of Calico 2, one of many routes in Red Rock and a good place to start a climbing tour of the park.
There are hundreds of climbs in Red Rock: from beginner routes (grade I), which you’ll find, for the most part, in and around the red sandstone formations, to more difficult multi-pitch climbs (grade VI) that require spending two or more nights on the route. (These climbs are found in the white sandstone peaks.)
At the Red Rock Visitor Center, we spend some time reading about the park and trying to find the famous Mojave Max in his pen outside the centre. We don’t find him. How a slow-moving desert tortoise confined to a pen goes missing, I’m not sure, but we don’t spend much time worrying about his whereabouts. We’re all anxious to get climbing before it gets too hot, so we head to the Calico Hills. It’s a 20-minute walk from the parking lot on the scenic circular loop to the base of the vertical wall; its redness, I’m assured, is owing to its high iron content, not the blood of previous climbers.
On the hike in we’re surrounded by Mojave yucca, mesquite, creosote bush and Joshua trees, some of the most common types of vegetation within the park. These plants thrive in hyper-dry conditions. There’s also agave and stunted junipers as well as oaks growing at higher elevations — where the bighorn sheep roam.
Calico Hills is a sport climbing area; there are bolts already in place. As the rest of us set up camp, Doug ascends the wall, attaching himself to the bolts as he goes until he reaches the top where he hooks in two top-ropes. He then gives us a tip for climbing on sandstone.
“Trust your feet,” he says.
During my first attempt to scale the wall on the right-most rope, fear gets the better of me when I reach a particularly difficult section. It feels like I am hundreds of feet up, but I’m really only about 20. I come back down feeling slightly discouraged, but not defeated. I take some time to explore the crags and washes around Calico Basin, while falcons and vultures circle overhead. There are more than 300 bird species in the park — some permanent, most just passing through on their migration route. Then I sit in the shade and watch as my mates attempt to climb the sandstone. I cheer their successes and mourn their failures. Everyone seems to be having trouble getting past that one section.
“It’s impossible. There’s nothing to grab onto,” is the common refrain. But Doug reminds us of the friction of the sandstone.
“You don’t need anything to grab onto. Trust your feet,” he says again.
We encourage each other and enjoy the landscape, the weather, the camaraderie and our sandwiches as the climbing continues throughout the morning.
Finally, I’m ready to try the right-hand line again. It’s easy-going until I get to the tricky section where I cling to the wall like a baby to its momma.
“Just stand up!” I peer down and see Doug calling up at me, shielding his eyes from the sun that is starting to rear its ugly head above the wall. Yeah, that’s the plan, but it’s easier said than done. I feel safe now, secure. If I stand up I might fall.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” Doug continues from below as if reading my mind. “So you fall?”
He’s right, of course. Falling isn’t so bad when you’re belayed from below. There’s not much slack in the rope and it probably won’t stretch too much. OK, I’ll just stand up. Trust your feet. Especially on this sandstone. Remember, friction. It’s like walking up a sandpaper wall.
So, I don’t fall. What’s next? From here it’s relatively easy and I make it to the top, a ledge 30 metres up, without incident. The view is spectacular and I do a happy dance, before realizing I have to get down somehow. It’s another test of faith, a challenge that must be performed, and I lean back into the void as I’m slowly lowered down, gaining confidence as I go.
I’m in the clouds once back on the ground. At the end of the day, when Doug says he needs someone to climb back up with him to remove the top ropes, I volunteer immediately. Climbing is a breeze. My hands and feet pick their spots as sure as those bighorn sheep and I rappel down the face at my own speed.
I could stay out here for days — climbing, bouldering, hiking. This 80-grit sandstone makes for easy scrambling. If one was determined, one could climb year-round.
“July and August are a little tougher for long routes because it gets so hot, but the rest of the year it’s all good,” Doug adds. We’re here in the spring, and it’s already toasty.
The other problematic factor is water. Of course you don’t want to run out of it, but just as important are the problems it creates when it rains. When it pours, it really pours and this land just isn’t made to handle it. Doug recommends waiting a day or two after a rainfall before climbing.
“Water gets into the cracks and fissures and you just don’t know what effect that has on the strength of the rock,” he explains.
As it turns out, Red Rock might just be better than Yosemite. For starters, flights to Vegas are cheap, fast and frequent and hotels are abundant. For those of us who have no interest in gambling, this is a great opportunity. Fly in to McCarran International Airport, drive out to Red Rock for the weekend and be back in Canada before the workweek starts again.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is 27 km west of Las Vegas on Route 159. Signage to the park is good; drive through the In-N-Out Burger on your way back to town.
This article originally appeared in our Spring 2015 issue.